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Saving the wetlands, destroying environment


THE FIGHT over building the Odenton Town Center reminds me of the famous quote about the Vietnamese town of Ben Tre during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

The anonymous officer who uttered the phrase about "destroying the village to save the village" brilliantly summed up the paradoxical battle plans of that frustrating war.

Anne Arundel County planners and elected officials face a similar situation with the Odenton Town Center, a high-density shopping and office complex slated to be built on a 220-acre marshy wooded area. It is bounded by Routes 32 and 175 and the Amtrak rail line, and contains as many as 50 acres of nontidal wetlands.

In order to "save" the county's overall environment, some of these wetlands will have to be destroyed.

Environmental groups including the Sierra Club, the Severn River Association and Severn River Commission adamantly oppose the project. Their position is that any destruction of wetlands is unacceptable.

They are urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of Environment to reject the application to fill in 10.9 acres of wetlands for a 215,000-square foot shopping center and parking lot.

Protecting wetlands is, indeed, in our collective interest. They act as natural filters to cleanse and purify storm water runoff into streams and rivers as well as the water that seeps into aquifers. They also provide habitats for animals, birds and a wide variety of plants.

The question before the county is whether the protection of this wetland will result in other, and possibly more destructive, environmental damage.

Town Center's history

When first conceived in Anne Arundel's 1968 general development plan, town centers were seen as a means of concentrating development and curbing sprawl and its environmentally destructive consequences. Odenton in western Anne Arundel, Glen Burnie in North County and Parole to the south were designated as town centers.

They were selected for a number of reasons. These dense residential, office and commercial developments would need to be located in areas with public services such as roads and sewers. They would also need access to public transportation and should occur near existing development.

In 1970, the County Council studied three sites near Odenton. It ultimately chose one for the Town Center based on its easy access to major roads and highways, and its proximity to a rail line, industrial parks and Fort George G. Meade.

The first Earth Day

Ironically, 1970 was also the year of the first Earth Day, when large numbers of Americans became conscious of the environment and the need for government intervention to protect the air, land and water.

Despite their sincere effort to curb the worst excesses of development, county officials had not even thought about protecting wetlands. Their importance might have been known at the time to hydrologists, estuarine biologists and others who specialized in studying runoff, but the public was still oblivious to the notion that wetlands were critical to environmental protection. As a result, county plans did not include provisions to avoid marshy or swampy wetlands.

By 1978, the county's new general plan reiterated the intention to focus growth "in or near" already developed areas. Odenton was again designated a commercial center for the western section of the county.

In 1980, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted its first guidelines for protecting wetlands. In 1986, the EPA finally adopted a comprehensive regulatory regime for protecting wetlands. In the meantime, the county government and developers began to build the infrastructure -- roads, water and sewer systems, water treatment and storm water management facilities -- to carry out the 1978 plan.

The proposed Odenton Town Center is consistent with the 1992 Maryland Planning Act, which mandates jurisdictions to concentrate development in suitable areas and minimize destruction of sensitive areas.

What if plan is killed?

If the Odenton Town Center can't be built on this site, the central feature of the county's 28-year plan will evaporate. Development can continue without it, and residents will have to drive farther to shop and work.

While keeping these wetlands intact is an admirable goal, the fact is that these have already been compromised. While the wetlands are at the headwaters of the Severn River, the runoff doesn't flow into the river. It runs into a massive storm water management pond designed to handle water from the nearby roadways.

I don't recall whether Ben Tre was saved, but we know that the war in Vietnam was lost. Let us hope that if these wetlands are saved, we don't deeply compromise the effort to protect the rest of this area's environment.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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